Archie hadn't seen him as yet; and Mrs. Lanfear had sent for me because she wished me to be present at the interview between the two men. The Lanfear ladies had a touching belief in Archie's violence: they thought him as terrible as a natural force. My own idea was that if there were any broken bones they wouldn't be Dredge's; but I was too curious as to the outcome not to be glad to offer my services as moderator.
First, however, I wanted to hear one of the lectures; and I went the next afternoon. The hall was jammed, and I saw, as soon as Dredge appeared, what increased security and ease the interest of his public had given him. He had been clear the year before, now he was also eloquent. The lecture was a remarkable effort: you'll find the gist of it in Chapter VII of "The Arrival of the Fittest." Archie sat at my side in a white rage; he was too clever not to measure the extent of the disaster. And I was almost as indignant as he when we went to see Dredge the next day.
I saw at a glance that the latter suspected nothing; and it was characteristic of him that he began by questioning me about my finds, and only afterward turned to reproach Archie for having been back a week without notifying him.
"You know I'm up to my neck in this job. Why in the world didn't you hunt me up before this?"
The question was exasperating, and I could understand Archie's stammer of wrath.
"Hunt you up? Hunt you up? What the deuce are you made of, to ask me such a question instead of wondering why I'm here now?"
Dredge bent his slow calm scrutiny on his friend's quivering face; then he turned to me.
"What's the matter?" he said simply.
"The matter?" shrieked Archie, his clenched fist hovering excitedly above the desk by which he stood; but Dredge, with unwonted quickness, caught the fist as it descended.
"Careful—I've got a Kallima in that jar there." He pushed a chair forward, and added quietly: "Sit down."
Archie, ignoring the gesture, towered pale and avenging in his place; and Dredge, after a moment, took the chair himself.
"The matter?" Archie reiterated with rising passion. "Are you so lost to all sense of decency and honour that you can put that question in good faith? Don't you really know what's the matter?"
Dredge smiled slowly. "There are so few things one really knows."
"Oh, damn your scientific hair-splitting! Don't you know you're insulting my father's memory?"
Dredge stared again, turning his spectacles thoughtfully from one of us to the other.
"Oh, that's it, is it? Then you'd better sit down. If you don't see at once it'll take some time to make you."
Archie burst into an ironic laugh.
"I rather think it will!" he conceded.
"Sit down, Archie," I said, setting the example; and he obeyed, with a gesture that made his consent a protest.
Dredge seemed to notice nothing beyond the fact that his visitors were seated. He reached for his pipe, and filled it with the care which the habit of delicate manipulations gave to all the motions of his long, knotty hands.
"It's about the lectures?" he said.
Archie's answer was a deep scornful breath.
"You've only been back a week, so you've only heard one, I suppose?"
"It was not necessary to hear even that one. You must know the talk they're making. If notoriety is what you're after—"
"Well, I'm not sorry to make a noise," said Dredge, putting a match to his pipe.
Archie bounded in his chair. "There's no easier way of doing it than to attack a man who can't answer you!"
Dredge raised a sobering hand. "Hold on. Perhaps you and I don't mean the same thing. Tell me first what's in your mind."
The request steadied Archie, who turned on Dredge a countenance really eloquent with filial indignation.
"It's an odd question for you to ask; it makes me wonder what's in yours. Not much thought of my father, at any rate, or you couldn't stand in his place and use the chance he's given you to push yourself at his expense."
Dredge received this in silence, puffing slowly at his pipe.
"Is that the way it strikes you?" he asked at length.
"God! It's the way it would strike most men."
He turned to me. "You too?"
"I can see how Archie feels," I said.
"That I'm attacking his father's memory to glorify myself?"
"Well, not precisely: I think what he really feels is that, if your convictions didn't permit you to continue his father's teaching, you might perhaps have done better to sever your connection with the Lanfear lectureship."
"Then you and he regard the Lanfear lectureship as having been founded to perpetuate a dogma, not to try and get at the truth?"
"Certainly not," Archie broke in. "But there's a question of taste, of delicacy, involved in the case that can't be decided on abstract principles. We know as well as you that my father meant the laboratory and the lectureship to serve the ends of science, at whatever cost to his own special convictions; what we feel—and you don't seem to—is that you're the last man to put them to that use; and I don't want to remind you why."
A slight redness rose through Dredge's sallow skin. "You needn't," he said. "It's because he pulled me out of my hole, woke me up, made me, shoved me off from the shore. Because he saved me ten or twenty years of muddled effort, and put me where I am at an age when my best working years are still ahead of me. Every one knows that's what your father did for me, but I'm the only person who knows the time and trouble that it took."
It was well said, and I glanced quickly at Archie, who was never closed to generous emotions.
"Well, then—?" he said, flushing also.
"Well, then," Dredge continued, his voice deepening and losing its nasal edge, "I had to pay him back, didn't I?"
The sudden drop flung Archie back on his prepared attitude of irony. "It would be the natural inference—with most men."
"Just so. And I'm not so very different. I knew your father wanted a successor—some one who'd try and tie up the loose ends. And I took the lectureship with that object."
"And you're using it to tear the whole fabric to pieces!"
Dredge paused to re-light his pipe. "Looks that way," he conceded. "This year anyhow."
" This year—?" Archie gasped at him.
"Yes. When I took up the job I saw it just as your father left it. Or rather, I didn't see any other way of going on with it. The change came gradually, as I worked."
"Gradually? So that you had time to look round you, to know where you were, to see you were fatally committed to undoing the work he had done?"
"Oh, yes—I had time," Dredge conceded.
"And yet you kept the chair and went on with the course?"
Dredge refilled his pipe, and then turned in his seat so that he looked squarely at Archie.
"What would your father have done in my place?" he asked.
"In your place—?"
"Yes: supposing he'd found out the things I've found out in the last year or two. You'll see what they are, and how much they count, if you'll run over the report of the lectures. If your father'd been alive he might have come across the same facts just as easily."
There was a silence which Archie at last broke by saying: "But he didn't, and you did. There's the difference."
"The difference? What difference? Would your father have suppressed the facts if he'd found them? It's you who insult his memory by implying it! And if I'd brought them to him, would he have used his hold over me to get me to suppress them?"
"Certainly not. But can't you see it's his death that makes the difference? He's not here to defend his case."
Dredge laughed, but not unkindly. "My dear Archie, your father wasn't one of the kind who bother to defend their case. Men like him are the masters, not the servants, of their theories. They respect an idea only as long as it's of use to them; when it's usefulness ends they chuck it out. And that's what your father would have done."
Archie reddened. "Don't you assume a good deal in taking it for granted that he would have had to in this particular case?"
Dredge reflected. Yes: I was going too far. Each of us can only answer for himself. But to my mind your father's theory is refuted."
"And you don't hesitate to be the man to do it?"
"Should I have been of any use if I had? And did your father ever ask anything of me but to be of as much use as I could?"
It was Archie's turn to reflect. "No. That was what he always wanted, of course."
"That's the way I've always felt. The first day he took me away from East Lethe I knew the debt I was piling up against him, and I never had any doubt as to how I'd pay it, or how he'd want it paid. He didn't pick me out and train me for any object but to carry on the light. Do you suppose he'd have wanted me to snuff it out because it happened to light up a fact he didn't fancy? I'm using his oil to feed my torch with: yes, but it isn't really his torch or mine, or his oil or mine: they belong to each of us till we drop and hand them on."
Archie turned a sobered glance on him. "I see your point. But if the job had to be done I don't see that you need have done it from his chair."
"There's where we differ. If I did it at all I had to do it in the best way, and with all the authority his backing gave me. If I owe your father anything, I owe him that. It would have made him sick to see the job badly done. And don't you see that the way to honour him, and show what he's done for science, was to spare no advantage in my attack on him—that I'm proving the strength of his position by the desperateness of my assault?" Dredge paused and squared his lounging shoulders. "After all," he added, "he's not down yet, and if I leave him standing I guess it'll be some time before anybody else cares to tackle him."
There was a silence between the two men; then Dredge continued in a lighter tone: "There's one thing, though, that we're both in danger of forgetting: and that is how little, in the long run, it all counts either way." He smiled a little at Archie's outraged gesture. "The most we can any of us do—even by such a magnificent effort as your father's—is to turn the great marching army a hair's breadth nearer what seems to us the right direction; if one of us drops out, here and there, the loss of headway's hardly perceptible. And that's what I'm coming to now."
He rose from his seat, and walked across to the hearth; then, cautiously resting his shoulder-blades against the mantel-shelf jammed with miscellaneous specimens, he bent his musing spectacles on Archie.
"Your father would have understood why I've done, what I'm doing; but that's no reason why the rest of you should. And I rather think it's the rest of you who've suffered most from me. He always knew what I was there for, and that must have been some comfort even when I was most in the way; but I was just an ordinary nuisance to you and your mother and Mabel. You were all too kind to let me see it at the time, but I've seen it since, and it makes me feel that, after all, the settling of this matter lies with you. If it hurts you to have me go on with my examination of your father's theory, I'm ready to drop the lectures to-morrow, and trust to the Lanfear Laboratory to breed up a young chap who'll knock us both out in time. You've only got to say the word."
There was a pause while Dredge turned and laid his extinguished pipe carefully between a jar of embryo sea-urchins and a colony of regenerating planarians.
Then Archie rose and held out his hand.
"No," he said simply; "go on."
GEOFFREY BETTON woke rather late—so late that the winter sunlight sliding across his warm red carpet struck his eyes as he turned on the pillow.
Strett, the valet, had been in, drawn the bath in the adjoining dressing-room, placed the crystal and silver cigarette-box at his side, put a match to the fire, and thrown open the windows to the bright morning air. It brought in, on the glitter of sun, all the shrill crisp morning noises—those piercing notes of the American thoroughfare that seem to take a sharper vibration from the clearness of the medium through which they pass.
Betton raised himself languidly. That was the voice of Fifth Avenue below his windows. He remembered that when he moved into his rooms eighteen months before, the sound had been like music to him: the complex orchestration to which the tune of his new life was set. Now it filled him with horror and weariness, since it had become the symbol of the hurry and noise of that new life. He had been far less hurried in the old days when he had to be up by seven, and down at the office sharp at nine. Now that he got up when he chose, and his life had no fixed framework of duties, the hours hunted him like a pack of blood-hounds.
He dropped back on his pillows with a groan. Yes—not a year ago there had been a positively sensuous joy in getting out of bed, feeling under his bare feet the softness of the sunlit carpet, and entering the shining tiled sanctuary where his great porcelain bath proffered its renovating flood. But then a year ago he could still call up the horror of the communal plunge at his earlier lodgings: the listening for other bathers, the dodging of shrouded ladies in "crimping"-pins, the cold wait on the landing, the reluctant descent into a blotchy tin bath, and the effort to identify one's soap and nail-brush among the promiscuous implements of ablution. That memory had faded now, and Betton saw only the dark hours to which his blue and white temple of refreshment formed a kind of glittering antechamber. For after his bath came his breakfast, and on the breakfast-tray his letters. His letters!
He remembered—and that memory had not faded!—the thrill with which he had opened the first missive in a strange feminine hand: the letter beginning: "I wonder if you'll mind an unknown reader's telling you all that your book has been to her?"
Mind? Ye gods, he minded now! For more than a year after the publication of "Diadems and Faggots" the letters, the inane indiscriminate letters of condemnation, of criticism, of interrogation, had poured in on him by every post. Hundreds of unknown readers had told him with unsparing detail all that his book had been to them. And the wonder of it was, when all was said and done, that it had really been so little—that when their thick broth of praise was strained through the author's anxious vanity there remained to him so small a sediment of definite specific understanding! No—it was always the same thing, over and over and over again—the same vague gush of adjectives, the same incorrigible tendency to estimate his effort according to each writer's personal preferences, instead of regarding it as a work of art, a thing to be measured by objective standards!
He smiled to think how little, at first, he had felt the vanity of it all. He had found a savour even in the grosser evidences of popularity: the advertisements of his book, the daily shower of "clippings," the sense that, when he entered a restaurant or a theatre, people nudged each other and said "That's Betton." Yes, the publicity had been sweet to him—at first. He had been touched by the sympathy of his fellow-men: had thought indulgently of the world, as a better place than the failures and the dyspeptics would acknowledge. And then his success began to submerge him: he gasped under the thickening shower of letters. His admirers were really unappeasable. And they wanted him to do such preposterous things—to give lectures, to head movements, to be tendered receptions, to speak at banquets, to address mothers, to plead for orphans, to go up in balloons, to lead the struggle for sterilized milk. They wanted his photograph for literary supplements, his autograph for charity bazaars, his name on committees, literary, educational, and social; above all, they wanted his opinion on everything: on Christianity, Buddhism, tight lacing, the drug-habit, democratic government, female suffrage and love. Perhaps the chief benefit of this demand was his incidentally learning from it how few opinions he really had: the only one that remained with him was a rooted horror of all forms of correspondence. He had been unutterably thankful when the letters began to fall off.
"Diadems and Faggots" was now two years old, and the moment was at hand when its author might have counted on regaining the blessed shelter of oblivion—if only he had not written another book! For it was the worst part of his plight that his first success had goaded him to the perpetration of this particular folly—that one of the incentives (hideous thought!) to his new work had been the desire to extend and perpetuate his popularity. And this very week the book was to come out, and the letters, the cursed letters, would begin again!
Wistfully, almost plaintively, he contemplated the breakfast-tray with which Strett presently appeared. It bore only two notes and the morning journals, but he knew that within the week it would groan under its epistolary burden. The very newspapers flung the fact at him as he opened them.
READY ON MONDAY.
GEOFFREY BETTON'S NEW NOVEL
BY THE AUTHOR OF "DIADEMS AND FAGGOTS."
FIRST EDITION OF ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND ALREADY SOLD OUT.
A hundred and fifty thousand volumes! And an average of three readers to each! Half a million of people would be reading him within a week, and every one of them would write to him, and their friends and relations would write too. He laid down the paper with a shudder.
The two notes looked harmless enough, and the calligraphy of one was vaguely familiar. He opened the envelope and looked at the signature: Duncan Vyse. He had not seen the name in years—what on earth could Duncan Vyse have to say? He ran over the page and dropped it with a wondering exclamation, which the watchful Strett, re-entering, met by a tentative "Yes, sir?"
"Nothing. Yes—that is—" Betton picked up the note. "There's a gentleman, a Mr. Vyse, coming to see me at ten."
Strett glanced at the clock. "Yes, sir. You'll remember that ten was the hour you appointed for the secretaries to call, sir."
Betton nodded. "I'll see Mr. Vyse first. My clothes, please."
As he got into them, in the state of irritable hurry that had become almost chronic with him, he continued to think about Duncan Vyse. They had seen a lot of each other for the few years after both had left Harvard: the hard happy years when Betton had been grinding at his business and Vyse—poor devil!—trying to write. The novelist recalled his friend's attempts with a smile; then the memory of one small volume came back to him. It was a novel: "The Lifted Lamp." There was stuff in that, certainly. He remembered Vyse's tossing it down on his table with a gesture of despair when it came back from the last publisher. Betton, taking it up indifferently, had sat riveted till daylight. When he ended, the impression was so strong that he said to himself: "I'll tell Apthorn about it—I'll go and see him to-morrow." His own secret literary yearnings gave him a passionate desire to champion Vyse, to see him triumph over the ignorance and timidity of the publishers. Apthorn was the youngest of the guild, still capable of opinions and the courage of them, a personal friend of Betton's, and, as it happened, the man afterward to become known as the privileged publisher of "Diadems and Faggots." Unluckily the next day something unexpected turned up, and Betton forgot about Vyse and his manuscript. He continued to forget for a month, and then came a note from Vyse, who was ill, and wrote to ask what his friend had done. Betton did not like to say "I've done nothing," so he left the note unanswered, and vowed again: "I'll see Apthorn."
The following day he was called to the West on business, and was gone a month. When he came back, there was another note from Vyse, who was still ill, and desperately hard up. "I'll take anything for the book, if they'll advance me two hundred dollars." Betton, full of compunction, would gladly have advanced the sum himself; but he was hard up too, and could only swear inwardly: "I'll write to Apthorn." Then he glanced again at the manuscript, and reflected: "No—there are things in it that need explaining. I'd better see him."
Once he went so far as to telephone Apthorn, but the publisher was out. Then he finally and completely forgot.
One Sunday he went out of town, and on his return, rummaging among the papers on his desk, he missed "The Lifted Lamp," which had been gathering dust there for half a year. What the deuce could have become of it? Betton spent a feverish hour in vainly increasing the disorder of his documents, and then bethought himself of calling the maid-servant, who first indignantly denied having touched anything ("I can see that's true from the dust," Betton scathingly interjected), and then mentioned with hauteur that a young lady had called in his absence and asked to be allowed to get a book.
"A lady? Did you let her come up?"
"She said somebody'd sent her."
Vyse, of course—Vyse had sent her for his manuscript! He was always mixed up with some woman, and it was just like him to send the girl of the moment to Betton's lodgings, with instructions to force the door in his absence. Vyse had never been remarkable for delicacy. Betton, furious, glanced over his table to see if any of his own effects were missing—one couldn't tell, with the company Vyse kept!—and then dismissed the matter from his mind, with a vague sense of magnanimity in doing so. He felt himself exonerated by Vyse's conduct.
The sense of magnanimity was still uppermost when the valet opened the door to announce "Mr. Vyse," and Betton, a moment later, crossed the threshold of his pleasant library.
His first thought was that the man facing him from the hearth-rug was the very Duncan Vyse of old: small, starved, bleached-looking, with the same sidelong movements, the same queer air of anaemic truculence. Only he had grown shabbier, and bald.
Betton held out a hospitable hand.
"This is a good surprise! Glad you looked me up, my dear fellow."
Vyse's palm was damp and bony: he had always had a disagreeable hand.
"You got my note? You know what I've come for?" he said.
"About the secretaryship? (Sit down.) Is that really serious?"
Betton lowered himself luxuriously into one of his vast Maple arm-chairs. He had grown stouter in the last year, and the cushion behind him fitted comfortably into the crease of his nape. As he leaned back he caught sight of his image in the mirror between the windows, and reflected uneasily that Vyse would not find him unchanged.
"Serious?" Vyse rejoined. "Why not? Aren't you?"
"Oh, perfectly." Betton laughed apologetically. "Only—well, the fact is, you may not understand what rubbish a secretary of mine would have to deal with. In advertising for one I never imagined—I didn't aspire to any one above the ordinary hack."
"I'm the ordinary hack," said Vyse drily.
Betton's affable gesture protested. "My dear fellow—. You see it's not business—what I'm in now," he continued with a laugh.
Vyse's thin lips seemed to form a noiseless " Isn't it?" which they instantly transposed into the audibly reply: "I inferred from your advertisement that you want some one to relieve you in your literary work. Dictation, short-hand—that kind of thing?"
"Well, no: not that either. I type my own things. What I'm looking for is somebody who won't be above tackling my correspondence."
Vyse looked slightly surprised. "I should be glad of the job," he then said.
Betton began to feel a vague embarrassment. He had supposed that such a proposal would be instantly rejected. "It would be only for an hour or two a day—if you're doing any writing of your own?" he threw out interrogatively.
"No. I've given all that up. I'm in an office now—business. But it doesn't take all my time, or pay enough to keep me alive."
"In that case, my dear fellow—if you could come every morning; but it's mostly awful bosh, you know," Betton again broke off, with growing awkwardness.
Vyse glanced at him humorously. "What you want me to write?"
"Well, that depends—" Betton sketched the obligatory smile. "But I was thinking of the letters you'll have to answer. Letters about my books, you know—I've another one appearing next week. And I want to be beforehand now—dam the flood before it swamps me. Have you any idea of the deluge of stuff that people write to a successful novelist?"
As Betton spoke, he saw a tinge of red on Vyse's thin cheek, and his own reflected it in a richer glow of shame. "I mean—I mean—" he stammered helplessly.
"No, I haven't," said Vyse; "but it will be awfully jolly finding out."
There was a pause, groping and desperate on Betton's part, sardonically calm on his visitor's.
"You—you've given up writing altogether?" Betton continued.
"Yes; we've changed places, as it were." Vyse paused. "But about these letters—you dictate the answers?"
"Lord, no! That's the reason why I said I wanted somebody—er—well used to writing. I don't want to have anything to do with them—not a thing! You'll have to answer them as if they were written to you—" Betton pulled himself up again, and rising in confusion jerked open one of the drawers of his writing-table.
"Here—this kind of rubbish," he said, tossing a packet of letters onto Vyse's knee.
"Oh—you keep them, do you?" said Vyse simply.
"I—well—some of them; a few of the funniest only."
Vyse slipped off the band and began to open the letters. While he was glancing over them Betton again caught his own reflection in the glass, and asked himself what impression he had made on his visitor. It occurred to him for the first time that his high-coloured well-fed person presented the image of commercial rather than of intellectual achievement. He did not look like his own idea of the author of "Diadems and Faggots"—and he wondered why.
Vyse laid the letters aside. "I think I can do it—if you'll give me a notion of the tone I'm to take."
"Yes—that is, if I'm to sign your name."
"Oh, of course: I expect you to sign for me. As for the tone, say just what you'd—well, say all you can without encouraging them to answer."
Vyse rose from his seat. "I could submit a few specimens," he suggested.
"Oh, as to that—you always wrote better than I do," said Betton handsomely.
"I've never had this kind of thing to write. When do you wish me to begin?" Vyse enquired, ignoring the tribute.
"The book's out on Monday. The deluge will begin about three days after. Will you turn up on Thursday at this hour?" Betton held his hand out with real heartiness. "It was great luck for me, your striking that advertisement. Don't be too harsh with my correspondents—I owe them something for having brought us together."
THE deluge began punctually on the Thursday, and Vyse, arriving as punctually, had an impressive pile of letters to attack. Betton, on his way to the Park for a ride, came into the library, smoking the cigarette of indolence, to look over his secretary's shoulder.
"How many of 'em? Twenty? Good Lord! It's going to be worse than 'Diadems.' I've just had my first quiet breakfast in two years—time to read the papers and loaf. How I used to dread the sight of my letter-box! Now I sha'n't know I have one."
He leaned over Vyse's chair, and the secretary handed him a letter.
"Here's rather an exceptional one—lady, evidently. I thought you might want to answer it yourself—"
"Exceptional?" Betton ran over the mauve pages and tossed them down. "Why, my dear man, I get hundreds like that. You'll have to be pretty short with her, or she'll send her photograph."
He clapped Vyse on the shoulder and turned away, humming a tune. "Stay to luncheon," he called back gaily from the threshold.
After luncheon Vyse insisted on showing a few of his answers to the first batch of letters. "If I've struck the note I won't bother you again," he urged; and Betton groaningly consented.
"My dear fellow, they're beautiful—too beautiful. I'll be let in for a correspondence with every one of these people."
Vyse, at this, meditated for a while above a blank sheet. "All right—how's this?" he said, after another interval of rapid writing.
Betton glanced over the page. "By George—by George! Won't she see it?" he exulted, between fear and rapture.
"It's wonderful how little people see," said Vyse reassuringly.
The letters continued to pour in for several weeks after the appearance of "Abundance." For five or six blissful days Betton did not even have his mail brought to him, trusting to Vyse to single out his personal correspondence, and to deal with the rest according to their agreement. During those days he luxuriated in a sense of wild and lawless freedom; then, gradually, he began to feel the need of fresh restraints to break, and learned that the zest of liberty lies in the escape from specific obligations. At first he was conscious only of a vague hunger, but in time the craving resolved into a shame-faced desire to see his letters.
"After all, I hated them only because I had to answer them"; and he told Vyse carelessly that he wished all his letters submitted to him before the secretary answered them.
At first he pushed aside those beginning: "I have just laid down 'Abundance' after a third reading," or: "Every day for the last month I have been telephoning my bookseller to know when your novel would be out." But little by little the freshness of his interest revived, and even this stereotyped homage began to arrest his eye. At last a day came when he read all the letters, from the first word to the last, as he had done when "Diadems and Faggots" appeared. It was really a pleasure to read them, now that he was relieved of the burden of replying: his new relation to his correspondents had the glow of a love-affair unchilled by the contingency of marriage.
One day it struck him that the letters were coming in more slowly and in smaller numbers. Certainly there had been more of a rush when "Diadems and Faggots" came out. Betton began to wonder if Vyse were exercising an unauthorized discrimination, and keeping back the communications he deemed least important. This sudden conjecture carried the novelist straight to his library, where he found Vyse bending over the writing-table with his usual inscrutable pale smile. But once there, Betton hardly knew how to frame his question, and blundered into an enquiry for a missing invitation.
"There's a note—a personal note—I ought to have had this morning. Sure you haven't kept it back by mistake among the others?"
Vyse laid down his pen. "The others? But I never keep back any."
Betton had foreseen the answer. "Not even the worst twaddle about my book?" he suggested lightly, pushing the papers about.
"Nothing. I understood you wanted to go over them all first."
"Well, perhaps it's safer," Betton conceded, as if the idea were new to him. With an embarrassed hand he continued to turn over the letters at Vyse's elbow.
"Those are yesterday's," said the secretary; "here are to-day's," he added, pointing to a meagre trio.
"H'm—only these?" Betton took them and looked them over lingeringly. "I don't see what the deuce that chap means about the first part of 'Abundance' 'certainly justifying the title'—do you?"
Vyse was silent, and the novelist continued irritably: "Damned cheek, his writing, if he doesn't like the book. Who cares what he thinks about it, anyhow?"
And his morning ride was embittered by the discovery that it was unexpectedly disagreeable to have Vyse read any letters which did not express unqualified praise of his books. He began to fancy there was a latent rancour, a kind of baffled sneer, under Vyse's manner; and he decided to return to the practice of having his mail brought straight to his room. In that way he could edit the letters before his secretary saw them.
Vyse made no comment on the change, and Betton was reduced to wondering whether his imperturbable composure were the mask of complete indifference or of a watchful jealousy. The latter view being more agreeable to his employer's self-esteem, the next step was to conclude that Vyse had not forgotten the episode of "The Lifted Lamp," and would naturally take a vindictive joy in any unfavourable judgments passed on his rival's work. This did not simplify the situation, for there was no denying that unfavourable criticisms preponderated in Betton's correspondence. "Abundance" was neither meeting with the unrestricted welcome of "Diadems and Faggots," nor enjoying the alternative of an animated controversy: it was simply found dull, and its readers said so in language not too tactfully tempered by regretful comparisons with its predecessor. To withhold unfavourable comments from Vyse was, therefore, to make it appear that correspondence about the book had died out; and its author, mindful of his unguarded predictions, found this even more embarrassing. The simplest solution would be to get rid of Vyse; and to this end Betton began to address his energies.
One evening, finding himself unexpectedly disengaged, he asked Vyse to dine; it had occurred to him that, in the course of an after-dinner chat, he might delicately hint his feeling that the work he had offered his friend was unworthy so accomplished a hand.
Vyse surprised him by a momentary hesitation. "I may not have time to dress."
Betton stared. "What's the odds? We'll dine here—and as late as you like."
Vyse thanked him, and appeared, punctually at eight, in all the shabbiness of his daily wear. He looked paler and more shyly truculent than usual, and Betton, from the height of his florid stature, said to himself, with the sudden professional instinct for "type": "He might be an agent of something—a chap who carries deadly secrets."
Vyse, it was to appear, did carry a deadly secret; but one less perilous to society than to himself. He was simply poor—inexcusably, irremediably poor. Everything failed him, had always failed him: whatever he put his hand to went to bits.
This was the confession that, reluctantly, yet with a kind of white-lipped bravado, he flung at Betton in answer to the latter's tentative suggestion that, really, the letter-answering job wasn't worth bothering him with—a thing that any type-writer could do.
"If you mean you're paying me more than it's worth, I'll take less," Vyse rushed out after a pause.
"Oh, my dear fellow—" Betton protested, flushing.
"What do you mean, then? Don't I answer the letters as you want them answered?"
Betton anxiously stroked his silken ankle. "You do it beautifully, too beautifully. I mean what I say: the work's not worthy of you. I'm ashamed to ask you—"
"Oh, hang shame," Vyse interrupted. "Do you know why I said I shouldn't have time to dress to-night? Because I haven't any evening clothes. As a matter of fact, I haven't much but the clothes I stand in. One thing after another's gone against me; all the infernal ingenuities of chance. It's been a slow Chinese torture, the kind where they keep you alive to have more fun killing you." He straightened himself with a sudden blush. "Oh, I'm all right now—getting on capitally. But I'm still walking rather a narrow plank; and if I do your work well enough—if I take your idea—"
Betton stared into the fire without answering. He knew next to nothing of Vyse's history, of the mischance or mis-management that had brought him, with his brains and his training, to so unlikely a pass. But a pang of compunction shot through him as he remembered the manuscript of "The Lifted Lamp" gathering dust on his table for half a year.
"Not that it would have made any earthly difference—since he's evidently never been able to get the thing published." But this reflection did not wholly console Betton, and he found it impossible, at the moment, to tell Vyse that his services were not needed.
DURING the ensuing weeks the letters grew fewer and fewer, and Betton foresaw the approach of the fatal day when his secretary, in common decency, would have to say: "I can't draw my pay for doing nothing."
What a triumph for Vyse!
The thought was intolerable, and Betton cursed his weakness in not having dismissed the fellow before such a possibility arose.
"If I tell him I've no use for him now, he'll see straight through it, of course;—and then, hang it, he looks so poor!"
This consideration came after the other, but Betton, in rearranging them, put it first, because he thought it looked better there, and also because he immediately perceived its value in justifying a plan of action that was beginning to take shape in his mind.
"Poor devil, I'm damned if I don't do it for him!" said Betton, sitting down at his desk.
Three or four days later he sent word to Vyse that he didn't care to go over the letters any longer, and that they would once more be carried directly to the library.
The next time he lounged in, on his way to his morning ride, he found his secretary's pen in active motion.
"A lot to-day," Vyse told him cheerfully.
His tone irritated Betton: it had the inane optimism of the physician reassuring a discouraged patient.
"Oh, Lord—I thought it was almost over," groaned the novelist.
"No: they've just got their second wind. Here's one from a Chicago publisher—never heard the name—offering you thirty per cent. on your next novel, with an advance royalty of twenty thousand. And here's a chap who wants to syndicate it for a bunch of Sunday papers: big offer, too. That's from Ann Arbor. And this—oh, this one's funny!"
He held up a small scented sheet to Betton, who made no movement to receive it.
"Funny? Why's it funny?" he growled.
"Well, it's from a girl—a lady—and she thinks she's the only person who understands 'Abundance'—has the clue to it. Says she's never seen a book so misrepresented by the critics—"
"Ha, ha! That is good!" Betton agreed with too loud a laugh.
"This one's from a lady, too—married woman. Says she's misunderstood, and would like to correspond."
"Oh, Lord," said Betton.—"What are you looking at?" he added sharply, as Vyse continued to bend his blinking gaze on the letters.
"I was only thinking I'd never seen such short letters from women. Neither one fills the first page."
"Well, what of that?" queried Betton.
Vyse reflected. "I'd like to meet a woman like that," he said wearily; and Betton laughed again.
The letters continued to pour in, and there could be no farther question of dispensing with Vyse's services. But one morning, about three weeks later, the latter asked for a word with his employer, and Betton, on entering the library, found his secretary with half a dozen documents spread out before him.
"What's up?" queried Betton, with a touch of impatience.
Vyse was attentively scanning the outspread letters.
"I don't know: can't make out." His voice had a faint note of embarrassment. "Do you remember a note signed Hester Macklin that came three or four weeks ago? Married—misunderstood—Western army post—wanted to correspond?"
Betton seemed to grope among his memories; then he assented vaguely.
"A short note," Vyse went on: "the whole story in half a page. The shortness struck me so much—and the directness—that I wrote her: wrote in my own name, I mean."
"In your own name?" Betton stood amazed; then he broke into a groan.
"Good Lord, Vyse—you're incorrigible!"
The secretary pulled his thin moustache with a nervous laugh. "If you mean I'm an ass, you're right. Look here." He held out an envelope stamped with the words: "Dead Letter Office." "My effusion has come back to me marked 'unknown.' There's no such person at the address she gave you."
Betton seemed for an instant to share his secretary's embarrassment; then he burst into an uproarious laugh.
"Hoax, was it? That's rough on you, old fellow!"
Vyse shrugged his shoulders. "Yes; but the interesting question is—why on earth didn't your answer come back, too?"
"The official one—the one I wrote in your name. If she's unknown, what's become of that?"
Betton stared at him with eyes wrinkled by amusement. "Perhaps she hadn't disappeared then."
Vyse disregarded the conjecture. "Look here—I believe all these letters are a hoax," he broke out.
Betton stared at him with a face that turned slowly red and angry. "What are you talking about? All what letters?"
"These I've spread out here: I've been comparing them. And I believe they're all written by one man."
Burton's redness turned to a purple that made his ruddy moustache seem pale. "What the devil are you driving at?" he asked.
"Well, just look at it," Vyse persisted, still bent above the letters. "I've been studying them carefully—those that have come within the last two or three weeks—and there's a queer likeness in the writing of some of them. The g's are all like corkscrews. And the same phrases keep recurring—the Ann Arbor news-agent uses the same expressions as the President of the Girls' College at Euphorbia, Maine."
Betton laughed. "Aren't the critics always groaning over the shrinkage of the national vocabulary? Of course we all use the same expressions."
"Yes," said Vyse obstinately. "But how about using the same g's?"
Betton laughed again, but Vyse continued without heeding him: "Look here, Betton—could Strett have written them?"
"Strett?" Betton roared. " Strett?" He threw himself into his arm-chair to shake out his mirth at greater ease.
"I'll tell you why. Strett always posts all my answers. He comes in for them every day before I leave. He posted the letter to the misunderstood party—the letter from you that the Dead Letter Office didn't return. I posted my own letter to her; and that came back."
A measurable silence followed the emission of this ingenious conjecture; then Betton observed with gentle irony: "Extremely neat. And of course it's no business of yours to supply any valid motive for this remarkable attention on my valet's part."
Vyse cast on him a slanting glance.
"If you've found that human conduct's generally based on valid motives—!"
"Well, outside of mad-houses it's supposed to be not quite incalculable."
Vyse had an odd smile under his thin moustache. "Every house is a mad-house at some time or another."
Betton rose with a careless shake of the shoulders. "This one will be if I talk to you much longer," he said, moving away with a laugh.
BETTON did not for a moment believe that Vyse suspected the valet of having written the letters.
"Why the devil don't he say out what he thinks? He was always a tortuous chap," he grumbled inwardly.
The sense of being held under the lens of Vyse's mute scrutiny became more and more exasperating. Betton, by this time, had squared his shoulders to the fact that "Abundance" was a failure with the public: a confessed and glaring failure. The press told him so openly, and his friends emphasized the fact by their circumlocutions and evasions. Betton minded it a good deal more than he had expected, but not nearly as much as he minded Vyse's knowing it. That remained the central twinge in his diffused discomfort. And the problem of getting rid of his secretary once more engaged him.
He had set aside all sentimental pretexts for retaining Vyse; but a practical argument replaced them. "If I ship him now he'll think it's because I'm ashamed to have him see that I'm not getting any more letters."
For the letters had ceased again, almost abruptly, since Vyse had hazarded the conjecture that they were the product of Strett's devoted pen. Betton had reverted only once to the subject—to ask ironically, a day or two later: "Is Strett writing to me as much as ever?"—and, on Vyse's replying with a neutral head-shake, had added with a laugh: "If you suspect him you might as well think I write the letters myself!"
"There are very few to-day," said Vyse, with his irritating evasiveness; and Betton rejoined squarely: "Oh, they'll stop soon. The book's a failure."
A few mornings later he felt a rush of shame at his own tergiversations, and stalked into the library with Vyse's sentence on his tongue.
Vyse started back with one of his anaemic blushes. "I was hoping you'd be in. I wanted to speak to you. There've been no letters the last day or two," he explained.
Betton drew a quick breath of relief. The man had some sense of decency, then! He meant to dismiss himself.
"I told you so, my dear fellow; the book's a flat failure," he said, almost gaily.
Vyse made a deprecating gesture. "I don't know that I should regard the absence of letters as the ultimate test. But I wanted to ask you if there isn't something else I can do on the days when there's no writing." He turned his glance toward the book-lined walls. "Don't you want your library catalogued?" he asked insidiously.
"Had it done last year, thanks." Betton glanced away from Vyse's face. It was piteous, how he needed the job!
"I see. ... Of course this is just a temporary lull in the letters. They'll begin again—as they did before. The people who read carefully read slowly—you haven't heard yet what they think."
Betton felt a rush of puerile joy at the suggestion. Actually, he hadn't thought of that!
"There was a big second crop after 'Diadems and Faggots,'" he mused aloud.
"Of course. Wait and see," said Vyse confidently.
The letters in fact began again—more gradually and in smaller numbers. But their quality was different, as Vyse had predicted. And in two cases Betton's correspondents, not content to compress into one rapid communication the thoughts inspired by his work, developed their views in a succession of really remarkable letters. One of the writers was a professor in a Western college; the other was a girl in Florida. In their language, their point of view, their reasons for appreciating "Abundance," they differed almost diametrically; but this only made the unanimity of their approval the more striking. The rush of correspondence evoked by Betton's earlier novel had produced nothing so personal, so exceptional as these communications. He had gulped the praise of "Diadems and Faggots" as undiscriminatingly as it was offered; now he knew for the first time the subtler pleasures of the palate. He tried to feign indifference, even to himself; and to Vyse he made no sign. But gradually he felt a desire to know what his secretary thought of the letters, and, above all, what he was saying in reply to them. And he resented acutely the possibility of Vyse's starting one of his clandestine correspondences with the girl in Florida. Vyse's notorious lack of delicacy had never been more vividly present to Betton's imagination; and he made up his mind to answer the letters himself.
He would keep Vyse on, of course: there were other communications that the secretary could attend to. And, if necessary, Betton would invent an occupation: he cursed his stupidity in having betrayed the fact that his books were already catalogued.
Vyse showed no surprise when Betton announced his intention of dealing personally with the two correspondents who showed so flattering a reluctance to take their leave. But Betton immediately read a criticism in his lack of comment, and put forth, on a note of challenge: "After all, one must be decent!"
Vyse looked at him with an evanescent smile. "You'll have to explain that you didn't write the first answers."
Betton halted. "Well—I—I more or less dictated them, didn't I?"
"Oh, virtually, they're yours, of course."
"You think I can put it that way?"
"Why not?" The secretary absently drew an arabesque on the blotting-pad. "Of course they'll keep it up longer if you write yourself," he suggested.
Betton blushed, but faced the issue. "Hang it all, I sha'n't be sorry. They interest me. They're remarkable letters." And Vyse, without observation, returned to his writings.
The spring, that year, was delicious to Betton. His college professor continued to address him tersely but cogently at fixed intervals, and twice a week eight serried pages came from Florida. There were other letters, too; he had the solace of feeling that at last "Abundance" was making its way, was reaching the people who, as Vyse said, read slowly because they read intelligently. But welcome as were all these proofs of his restored authority they were but the background of his happiness. His life revolved for the moment about the personality of his two chief correspondents. The professor's letters satisfied his craving for intellectual recognition, and the satisfaction he felt in them proved how completely he had lost faith in himself. He blushed to think that his opinion of his work had been swayed by the shallow judgments of a public whose taste he despised. Was it possible that he had allowed himself to think less well of "Abundance" because it was not to the taste of the average novel-reader? Such false humility was less excusable than the crudest appetite for praise: it was ridiculous to try to do conscientious work if one's self-esteem were at the mercy of popular judgments. All this the professor's letters delicately and indirectly conveyed to Betton, with the result that the author of "Abundance" began to recognize in it the ripest flower of his genius.
But if the professor understood his book, the girl in Florida understood him; and Betton was fully alive to the superior qualities of discernment which this process implied. For his lovely correspondent his novel was but the starting-point, the pretext of her discourse: he himself was her real object, and he had the delicious sense, as their exchange of thoughts proceeded, that she was interested in "Abundance" because of its author, rather than in the author because of his book. Of course she laid stress on the fact that his ideas were the object of her contemplation; but Betton's agreeable person had permitted him some insight into the incorrigible subjectiveness of female judgments, and he was pleasantly aware, from the lady's tone, that she guessed him to be neither old nor ridiculous. And suddenly he wrote to ask if he might see her. ...
The answer was long in coming. Betton fumed at the delay, watched, wondered, fretted; then he received the one word "Impossible."
He wrote back more urgently, and awaited the reply with increasing eagerness. A certain shyness had kept him from once more modifying the instructions regarding his mail, and Strett still carried the letters directly to Vyse. The hour when he knew they were passing under the latter's eyes was now becoming intolerable to Betton, and it was a profound relief when the secretary, suddenly advised of his father's illness, asked permission to absent himself for a fortnight.
Vyse departed just after Betton had despatched to Florida his second missive of entreaty, and for ten days he tasted the furtive joy of a first perusal of his letters. The answer from Florida was not among them; but Betton said to himself "She's thinking it over," and delay, in that light, seemed favourable. So charming, in fact, was this phase of sentimental suspense that he felt a start of resentment when a telegram apprised him one morning that Vyse would return to his post that day.
Betton had slept later than usual, and, springing out of bed with the telegram in his hand, he learned from the clock that his secretary was due in half an hour. He reflected that the morning's mail must long since be in; and, too impatient to wait for its appearance with his breakfast-tray, he threw on a dressing-gown and went to the library. There lay the letters, half a dozen of them: but his eye flew to one envelope, and as he tore it open a warm wave rocked his heart.
The letter was dated a few days after its writer must have received his own: it had all the qualities of grace and insight to which his unknown friend had accustomed him, but it contained no allusion, however indirect, to the special purport of his appeal. Even a vanity less ingenious than Betton's might have read in the lady's silence one of the most familiar motions of consent; but the smile provoked by this inference faded as he turned to his other letters. For the uppermost bore the superscription "Dead Letter Office," and the document that fell from it was his own last letter from Florida.
Betton studied the ironic "Unknown" for an appreciable space of time; then he broke into a laugh. He had suddenly recalled Vyse's similar experience with "Hester Macklin," and the light he was able to throw on that obscure episode was searching enough to penetrate all the dark corners of his own adventure. He felt a rush of heat to the ears; catching sight of himself in the glass, he saw a red ridiculous congested countenance, and dropped into a chair to hide it between flushed fists. He was roused by the opening of the door, and Vyse appeared on the threshold.
"Oh, I beg pardon—you're ill?" said the secretary.
Betton's only answer was an inarticulate murmur of derision; then he pushed forward the letter with the imprint of the Dead Letter Office.
"Look at that," he jeered.
Vyse peered at the envelope, and turned it over slowly in his hands. Betton's eyes, fixed on him, saw his face decompose like a substance touched by some powerful acid. He clung to the envelope as if to gain time.
"It's from the young lady you've been writing to at Swazee Springs?" he asked at length.
"It's from the young lady I've been writing to at Swazee Springs."
"Well—I suppose she's gone away," continued Vyse, rebuilding his countenance rapidly.
"Yes; and in a community numbering perhaps a hundred and seventy-five souls, including the dogs and chickens, the local post-office is so ignorant of her movements that my letter has to be sent to the Dead Letter Office."
Vyse meditated on this; then he laughed in turn. "After all, the same thing happened to me—with 'Hester Macklin,' I mean," he recalled sheepishly.
"Just so," said Betton, bringing down his clenched fist on the table. " Just so," he repeated, in italics.
He caught his secretary's glance, and held it with his own for a moment. Then he dropped it as, in pity, one releases something scared and squirming.
"The very day my letter was returned from Swazee Springs she wrote me this from there," he said, holding up the last Florida missive.
"Ha! That's funny," said Vyse, with a damp forehead.
"Yes, it's funny; it's funny," said Betton. He leaned back, his hands in his pockets, staring up at the ceiling, and noticing a crack in the cornice. Vyse, at the corner of the writing-table, waited.
"Shall I get to work?" he began, after a silence measurable by minutes. Betton's gaze descended from the cornice.
"I've got your seat, haven't I?" he said, rising and moving away from the table.
Vyse, with a quick gleam of relief, slipped into the vacant chair, and began to stir about vaguely among the papers.
"How's your father?" Betton asked from the hearth.
"Oh, better—better, thank you. He'll pull out of it."
"But you had a sharp scare for a day or two?"
"Yes—it was touch and go when I got there."
Another pause, while Vyse began to classify the letters.
"And I suppose," Betton continued in a steady tone, "your anxiety made you forget your usual precautions—whatever they were—about this Florida correspondence, and before you'd had time to prevent it the Swazee post-office blundered?"
Vyse lifted his head with a quick movement. "What do you mean?" he asked, pushing his chair back.
"I mean that you saw I couldn't live without flattery, and that you've been ladling it out to me to earn your keep."
Vyse sat motionless and shrunken, digging the blotting-pad with his pen. "What on earth are you driving at?" he repeated.
"Though why the deuce," Betton continued in the same steady tone, "you should need to do this kind of work when you've got such faculties at your service—those letters were magnificent, my dear fellow! Why in the world don't you write novels, instead of writing to other people about them?"
Vyse straightened himself with an effort. "What are you talking about, Betton? Why the devil do you think I wrote those letters?"
Betton held back his answer, with a brooding face. "Because I wrote 'Hester Macklin's'—to myself!"
Vyse sat stock-still, without the least outcry of wonder. "Well—?" he finally said, in a low tone.
"And because you found me out (you see, you can't even feign surprise!)—because you saw through it at a glance, knew at once that the letters were faked. And when you'd foolishly put me on my guard by pointing out to me that they were a clumsy forgery, and had then suddenly guessed that I was the forger, you drew the natural inference that I had to have popular approval, or at least had to make you think I had it. You saw that, to me, the worst thing about the failure of the book was having you know it was a failure. And so you applied your superior—your immeasurably superior—abilities to carrying on the humbug, and deceiving me as I'd tried to deceive you. And you did it so successfully that I don't see why the devil you haven't made your fortune writing novels!"
Vyse remained silent, his head slightly bent under the mounting tide of Betton's denunciation.
"The way you differentiated your people—characterised them—avoided my stupid mistake of making the women's letters too short and logical, of letting my different correspondents use the same expressions: the amount of ingenuity and art you wasted on it! I swear, Vyse, I'm sorry that damned post-office went back on you," Betton went on, piling up the waves of his irony.
But at this height they suddenly paused, drew back on themselves, and began to recede before the spectacle of Vyse's pale distress. Something warm and emotional in Betton's nature—a lurking kindliness, perhaps, for any one who tried to soothe and smooth his writhing ego—softened his eye as it rested on the drooping figure of his secretary.
"Look here, Vyse—I'm not sorry—not altogether sorry this has happened!" He moved slowly across the room, and laid a friendly palm on Vyse's shoulder. "In a queer illogical way it evens up things, as it were. I did you a shabby turn once, years ago—oh, out of sheer carelessness, of course—about that novel of yours I promised to give to Apthorn. If I had given it, it might not have made any difference—I'm not sure it wasn't too good for success—but anyhow, I dare say you thought my personal influence might have helped you, might at least have got you a quicker hearing. Perhaps you thought it was because the thing was so good that I kept it back, that I felt some nasty jealousy of your superiority. I swear to you it wasn't that—I clean forgot it. And one day when I came home it was gone: you'd sent and taken it. And I've always thought since you might have owed me a grudge—and not unjustly; so this ... this business of the letters ... the sympathy you've shown ... for I suppose it is sympathy ... ?"
Vyse startled and checked him by a queer crackling laugh.
"It's not sympathy?" broke in Betton, the moisture drying out of his voice. He withdrew his hand from Vyse's shoulder. "What is it, then? The joy of uncovering my nakedness? An eye for an eye? Is it that?"
Vyse rose from his seat, and with a mechanical gesture swept into a heap all the letters he had sorted.
"I'm stone broke, and wanted to keep my job—that's what it is," he said wearily ...
ARTHUR BERNALD could never afterward recall just when the first conjecture flashed on him: oddly enough, there was no record of it in the agitated jottings of his diary. But, as it seemed to him in retrospect, he had always felt that the queer man at the Wades' must be John Pellerin, if only for the negative reason that he couldn't imaginably be any one else. It was impossible, in the confused pattern of the century's intellectual life, to fit the stranger in anywhere, save in the big gap which, some five and twenty years earlier, had been left by Pellerin's unaccountable disappearance; and conversely, such a man as the Wades' visitor couldn't have lived for sixty years without filling, somewhere in space, a nearly equivalent void.
At all events, it was certainly not to Doctor Wade or to his mother that Bernald owed the hint: the good unconscious Wades, one of whose chief charms in the young man's eyes was that they remained so robustly untainted by Pellerinism, in spite of the fact that Doctor Wade's younger brother, Howland, was among its most impudently flourishing high-priests.
The incident had begun by Bernald's running across Doctor Robert Wade one hot summer night at the University Club, and by Wade's saying, in the tone of unprofessional laxity which the shadowy stillness of the place invited: "I got hold of a queer fish at St. Martin's the other day—case of heat-prostration picked up in Central Park. When we'd patched him up I found he had nowhere to go, and not a dollar in his pocket, and I sent him down to our place at Portchester to re-build."
The opening roused his hearer's attention. Bob Wade had an odd unformulated sense of values that Bernald had learned to trust.
"What sort of chap? Young or old?"
"Oh, every age—full of years, and yet with a lot left. He called himself sixty on the books."
"Sixty's a good age for some kinds of living. And age is of course purely subjective. How has he used his sixty years?"
"Well—part of them in educating himself, apparently. He's a scholar—humanities, languages, and so forth."
"Oh—decayed gentleman," Bernald murmured, disappointed.
"Decayed? Not much!" cried the doctor with his accustomed literalness. "I only mentioned that side of Winterman—his name's Winterman—because it was the side my mother noticed first. I suppose women generally do. But it's only a part—a small part. The man's the big thing."
"Well—there again. ... When I took him down to the country, looking rather like a tramp from a 'Shelter,' with an untrimmed beard, and a suit of reach-me-downs he'd slept round the Park in for a week, I felt sure my mother'd carry the silver up to her room, and send for the gardener's dog to sleep in the hall the first night. But she didn't."
"I see. 'Women and children love him.' Oh, Wade!" Bernald groaned.
"Not a bit of it! You're out again. We don't love him, either of us. But we feel him—the air's charged with him. You'll see."
And Bernald agreed that he would see, the following Sunday. Wade's inarticulate attempts to characterize the stranger had struck his friend. The human revelation had for Bernald a poignant and ever-renewed interest, which his trade, as the dramatic critic of a daily paper, had hitherto failed to discourage. And he knew that Bob Wade, simple and undefiled by literature—Bernald's specific affliction—had a free and personal way of judging men, and the diviner's knack of reaching their hidden springs. During the days that followed, the young doctor gave Bernald farther details about John Winterman: details not of fact—for in that respect his visitor's reticence was baffling—but of impression. It appeared that Winterman, while lying insensible in the Park, had been robbed of the few dollars he possessed; and on leaving the hospital, still weak and half-blind, he had quite simply and unprotestingly accepted the Wades' offer to give him shelter till such time as he should be strong enough to go to work.
"But what's his work?" Bernald interjected. "Hasn't he at least told you that?"
"Well, writing. Some kind of writing." Doctor Bob always became vague and clumsy when he approached the confines of literature. "He means to take it up again as soon as his eyes get right."
Bernald groaned. "Oh, Lord—that finishes him; and me! He's looking for a publisher, of course—he wants a 'favourable notice.' I won't come!"
"He hasn't written a line for twenty years."
"A line of what? What kind of literature can one keep corked up for twenty years?"
Wade surprised him. "The real kind, I should say. But I don't know Winterman's line," the doctor added. "He speaks of the things he used to write merely as 'stuff that wouldn't sell.' He has a wonderfully confidential way of not telling one things. But he says he'll have to do something for his living as soon as his eyes are patched up, and that writing is the only trade he knows. The queer thing is that he seems pretty sure of selling now. He even talked of buying the bungalow of us, with an acre or two about it."
"The bungalow? What's that?"
"The studio down by the shore that we built for Howland when he thought he meant to paint." (Howland Wade, as Bernald knew, had experienced various "calls.") "Since he's taken to writing nobody's been near it. I offered it to Winterman, and he camps there—cooks his meals, does his own house-keeping, and never comes up to the house except in the evenings, when he joins us on the verandah, in the dark, and smokes while my mother knits."
"A discreet visitor, eh?"
"More than he need be. My mother actually wanted him to stay on in the house—in her pink chintz room. Think of it! But he says houses smother him. I take it he's lived for years in the open."
"In the open where?"
"I can't make out, except that it was somewhere in the East. 'East of everything—beyond the day-spring. In places not on the map.' That's the way he put it; and when I said: 'You've been an explorer, then?' he smiled in his beard, and answered: 'Yes; that's it—an explorer.' Yet he doesn't strike me as a man of action: hasn't the hands or the eyes."
"What sort of hands and eyes has he?"
Wade reflected. His range of observation was not large, but within its limits it was exact and could give an account of itself.
"He's worked a lot with his hands, but that's not what they were made for. I should say they were extraordinarily delicate conductors of sensation. And his eye—his eye too. He hasn't used it to dominate people: he didn't care to. He simply looks through 'em all like windows. Makes me feel like the fellows who think they're made of glass. The mitigating circumstance is that he seems to see such a glorious landscape through me." Wade grinned at the thought of serving such a purpose.
"I see. I'll come on Sunday and be looked through!" Bernald cried.
BERNALD came on two successive Sundays; and the second time he lingered till the Tuesday.
"Here he comes!" Wade had said, the first evening, as the two young men, with Wade's mother sat in the sultry dusk, with the Virginian creeper drawing, between the verandah arches, its black arabesques against a moon-lined sky.
In the darkness Bernald heard a step on the gravel, and saw the red flit of a cigar through the shrubs. Then a loosely-moving figure obscured the patch of sky between the creepers, and the red spark became the centre of a dim bearded face, in which Bernald discerned only a broad white gleam of forehead.
It was the young man's subsequent impression that Winterman had not spoken much that first evening; at any rate, Bernald himself remembered chiefly what the Wades had said. And this was the more curious because he had come for the purpose of studying their visitor, and because there was nothing to divert him from that purpose in Wade's halting communications or his mother's artless comments. He reflected afterward that there must have been a mysteriously fertilizing quality in the stranger's silence: it had brooded over their talk like a large moist cloud above a dry country.
Mrs. Wade, apparently apprehensive lest her son should have given Bernald an exaggerated notion of their visitor's importance, had hastened to qualify it before the latter appeared.
"He's not what you or Howland would call intellectual—"(Bernald writhed at the coupling of the names)—"not in the least literary; though he told Bob he used to write. I don't think, though, it could have been what Howland would call writing." Mrs. Wade always mentioned her younger son with a reverential drop of the voice. She viewed literature much as she did Providence, as an inscrutably mystery; and she spoke of Howland as a dedicated being, set apart to perform secret rites within the veil of the sanctuary.
"I shouldn't say he had a quick mind," she continued, reverting apologetically to Winterman. "Sometimes he hardly seems to follow what we're saying. But he's got such sound ideas—when he does speak he's never silly. And clever people sometimes are, don't you think so?" Bernald groaned an unqualified assent. "And he's so capable. The other day something went wrong with the kitchen range, just as I was expecting some friends of Bob's for dinner; and do you know, when Mr. Winterman heard we were in trouble, he came and took a look, and knew at once what to do? I told him it was a dreadful pity he wasn't married!"
Close on midnight, when the session on the verandah ended, and the two young men were strolling down to the bungalow at Winterman's side, Bernald's mind reverted to the image of the fertilizing cloud. There was something brooding, pregnant, in the silent presence beside him: he had, in place of any circumscribing impression of the individual, a large hovering sense of manifold latent meanings. And he felt a distinct thrill of relief when, half-way down the lawn, Doctor Bob was checked by a voice that called him back to the telephone.
"Now I'll be with him alone!" thought Bernald, with a throb like a lover's.
In the low-ceilinged bungalow Winterman had to grope for the lamp on his desk, and as its light struck up into his face Bernald's sense of the rareness of his opportunity increased. He couldn't have said why, for the face, with its ridged brows, its shabby greyish beard and blunt Socratic nose, made no direct appeal to the eye. It seemed rather like a stage on which remarkable things might be enacted, like some shaggy moorland landscape dependent for form and expression on the clouds rolling over it, and the bursts of light between; and one of these flashed out in the smile with which Winterman, as if in answer to his companion's thought, said simply, as he turned to fill his pipe: "Now we'll talk."
So he'd known all along that they hadn't yet—and had guessed that, with Bernald, one might!
The young man's glow of pleasure was so intense that it left him for a moment unable to meet the challenge; and in that moment he felt the brush of something winged and summoning. His spirit rose to it with a rush; but just as he felt himself poised between the ascending pinions, the door opened and Bob Wade plunged in.
"Too bad! I'm so sorry! It was from Howland, to say he can't come to-morrow after all." The doctor panted out his news with honest grief.
"I tried my best to pull it off for you; and my brother wants to come—he's keen to talk to you and see what he can do. But you see he's so tremendously in demand. He'll try for another Sunday later on."
Winterman nodded with a whimsical gesture. "Oh, he'll find me here. I shall work my time out slowly." He pointed to the scattered sheets on the kitchen table which formed his writing desk.
"Not slowly enough to suit us," Wade answered hospitably. "Only, if Howland could have come he might have given you a tip or two—put you on the right track—shown you how to get in touch with the public."
Winterman, his hands in his sagging pockets, lounged against the bare pine walls, twisting his pipe under his beard. "Does your brother enjoy the privilege of that contact?" he questioned gravely.
Wade stared a little. "Oh, of course Howland's not what you'd call a popular writer; he despises that kind of thing. But whatever he says goes with—well, with the chaps that count; and every one tells me he's written the book on Pellerin. You must read it when you get back your eyes." He paused, as if to let the name sink in, but Winterman drew at his pipe with a blank face. "You must have heard of Pellerin, I suppose?" the doctor continued. "I've never read a word of him myself: he's too big a proposition for me. But one can't escape the talk about him. I have him crammed down my throat even in hospital. The internes read him at the clinics. He tumbles out of the nurses' pockets. The patients keep him under their pillows. Oh, with most of them, of course, it's just a craze, like the last new game or puzzle: they don't understand him in the least. Howland says that even now, twenty-five years after his death, and with his books in everybody's hands, there are not twenty people who really understand Pellerin; and Howland ought to know, if anybody does. He's—what's their great word?—interpreted him. You must get Howland to put you through a course of Pellerin."
And as the young men, having taken leave of Winterman, retraced their way across the lawn, Wade continued to develop the theme of his brother's accomplishments.
"I wish I could get Howland to take an interest in Winterman: this is the third Sunday he's chucked us. Of course he does get bored with people consulting him about their writings—but I believe if he could only talk to Winterman he'd see something in him, as we do. And it would be such a god-send to the poor man to have some one to advise him about his work. I'm going to make a desperate effort to get Howland here next Sunday."
It was then that Bernald vowed to himself that he would return the next Sunday at all costs. He hardly knew whether he was prompted by the impulse to shield Winterman from Howland Wade's ineptitude, or by the desire to see the latter abandon himself to the full shamelessness of its display; but of one fact he was blissfully assured—and that was of the existence in Winterman of some quality which would provoke Howland to the amplest exercise of his fatuity. "How he'll draw him—how he'll draw him!" Bernald chuckled, with a security the more unaccountable that his one glimpse of Winterman had shown the latter only as a passive subject for experimentation; and he felt himself avenged in advance for the injury of Howland Wade's existence.
THAT this hope was to be frustrated Bernald learned from Howland Wade's own lips, the day before the two young men were to meet at Portchester.
"I can't really, my dear fellow," the Interpreter lisped, passing a polished hand over the faded smoothness of his face. "Oh, an authentic engagement, I assure you: otherwise, to oblige old Bob I'd submit cheerfully to looking over his foundling's literature. But I'm pledged this week to the Pellerin Society of Kenosha: I had a hand in founding it, and for two years now they've been patiently waiting for a word from me—the Fiat Lux, so to speak. You see it's a ministry, Bernald—I assure you, I look upon my calling quite religiously."
As Bernald listened, his disappointment gradually changed to relief. Howland, on trial, always turned out to be too insufferable, and the pleasure of watching his antics was invariably lost in the impulse to put a sanguinary end to them.
"If he'd only keep his beastly pink hands off Pellerin," Bernald groaned, thinking of the thick manuscript condemned to perpetual incarceration in his own desk by the publication of Howland's "definitive" work on the great man. One couldn't, after Howland Wade, expose one's self to the derision of writing about Pellerin: the eagerness with which Wade's book had been devoured proved, not that the public had enough appetite for another, but simply that, for a stomach so undiscriminating, anything better than Wade had given it would be too good. And Bernald, in the confidence that his own work was open to this objection, had stoically locked it up. Yet if he had resigned his exasperated intelligence to the fact that Wade's book existed, and was already passing into the immortality of perpetual republication, he could not, after repeated trials, adjust himself to the author's talk about Pellerin. When Wade wrote of the great dead he was egregious, but in conversation he was familiar and fond. It might have been supposed that one of the beauties of Pellerin's hidden life and mysterious taking off would have been to guard him from the fingering of anecdote; but biographers like Howland Wade were born to rise above such obstacles. He might be vague or inaccurate in dealing with the few recorded events of his subject's life; but when he left fact for conjecture no one had a firmer footing. Whole chapters in his volume were constructed in the conditional mood and packed with hypothetical detail; and in talk, by the very law of the process, hypothesis became affirmation, and he was ready to tell you confidentially the exact circumstances of Pellerin's death, and of the "distressing incident" leading up to it. Bernald himself not only questioned the form under which this incident was shaping itself before posterity, but the mere radical fact of its occurrence: he had never been able to discover any break in the dense cloud enveloping Pellerin's later life and its mysterious termination. He had gone away—that was all that any of them knew: he who had so little, at any time, been with them or of them; and his going had so slightly stirred the public consciousness that even the subsequent news of his death, laconically imparted from afar, had dropped unheeded into the universal scrap-basket, to be long afterward fished out, with all its details missing, when some enquiring spirit first became aware, by chance encounter with a two-penny volume in a London book-stall, not only that such a man as John Pellerin had died, but that he had ever lived, or written.
It need hardly be noted that Howland Wade had not been the pioneer in question: his had been the wiser part of swelling the chorus when it rose, and gradually drowning the other voices by his own insistent note. He had pitched the note so screamingly, and held it so long, that he was now the accepted authority on Pellerin, not only in the land which had given birth to his genius but in the Europe which had first acclaimed it; and it was the central point of pain in Bernald's sense of the situation that a man who had so yearned for silence as Pellerin should have his grave piped over by such a voice as Wade's.
Bernald's talk with the Interpreter had revived this ache to the momentary exclusion of other sensations; and he was still sore with it when, the next afternoon, he arrived at Portchester for his second Sunday with the Wades.
At the station he had the surprise of seeing Winterman's face on the platform, and of hearing from him that Doctor Bob had been called away to assist at an operation in a distant town.
"Mrs. Wade wanted to put you off, but I believe the message came too late; so she sent me down to break the news to you," said Winterman, holding out his hand.
Perhaps because they were the first conventional words that Bernald had heard him speak, the young man was struck by the relief his intonation gave them.
"She wanted to send a carriage," Winterman added, "but I told her we'd walk back through the woods." He looked at Bernald with a sudden kindness that flushed the young man with pleasure.
"Are you strong enough? It's not too far?"
"Oh, no. I'm pulling myself together. Getting back to work is the slowest part of the business: not on account of my eyes—I can use them now, though not for reading; but some of the links between things are missing. It's a kind of broken spectrum ... here, that boy will look after your bag."
The walk through the woods remained in Bernald's memory as an enchanted hour. He used the word literally, as descriptive of the way in which Winterman's contact changed the face of things, or perhaps restored them to their primitive meanings. And the scene they traversed—one of those little untended woods that still, in America, fringe the tawdry skirts of civilization—acquired, as a background to Winterman, the hush of a spot aware of transcendent visitings. Did he talk, or did he make Bernald talk? The young man never knew. He recalled only a sense of lightness and liberation, as if the hard walls of individuality had melted, and he were merged in the poet's deeper interfusion, yet without losing the least sharp edge of self. This general impression resolved itself afterward into the sense of Winterman's wide elemental range. His thought encircled things like the horizon at sea. He didn't, as it happened, touch on lofty themes—Bernald was gleefully aware that, to Howland Wade, their talk would hardly have been Talk at all—but Winterman's mind, applied to lowly topics, was like a powerful lens that brought out microscopic delicacies and differences.
The lack of Sunday trains kept Doctor Bob for two days on the scene of his surgical duties, and during those two days Bernald seized every moment of communion with his friend's guest. Winterman, as Wade had said, was reticent as to his personal affairs, or rather as to the practical and material conditions to which the term is generally applied. But it was evident that, in Winterman's case, the usual classification must be reversed, and that the discussion of ideas carried one much farther into his intimacy than any specific acquaintance with the incidents of his life.
"That's exactly what Howland Wade and his tribe have never understood about Pellerin: that it's much less important to know how, or even why, he disapp—"
Bernald pulled himself up with a jerk, and turned to look full at his companion. It was late on the Monday evening, and the two men, after an hour's chat on the verandah to the tune of Mrs. Wade's knitting-needles, had bidden their hostess good-night and strolled back to the bungalow together.
"Come and have a pipe before you turn in," Winterman had said; and they had sat on together till midnight, with the door of the bungalow open on a heaving moonlit bay, and summer insects bumping against the chimney of the lamp. Winterman had just bent down to re-fill his pipe from the jar on the table, and Bernald, jerking about to catch him in the yellow circle of lamplight, sat speechless, staring at a fact that seemed suddenly to have substituted itself for Winterman's face, or rather to have taken on its features.
"No, they never saw that Pellerin's ideas were Pellerin. ..." He continued to stare at Winterman. "Just as this man's ideas are—why, are Pellerin!"
The thought uttered itself in a kind of inner shout, and Bernald started upright with the violent impact of his conclusion. Again and again in the last forty-eight hours he had exclaimed to himself: "This is as good as Pellerin." Why hadn't he said till now: "This is Pellerin"? ... Surprising as the answer was, he had no choice but to take it. He hadn't said so simply because Winterman was better than Pellerin—that there was so much more of him, so to speak. Yes; but—it came to Bernald in a flash—wouldn't there by this time have been any amount more of Pellerin? ... The young man felt actually dizzy with the thought. That was it—there was the solution of the haunting problem! This man was Pellerin, and more than Pellerin! It was so fantastic and yet so unanswerable that he burst into a sudden startled laugh.
Winterman, at the same moment, brought his palm down with a sudden crash on the pile of manuscript covering the desk.
"What's the matter?" Bernald gasped.
"My match wasn't out. In another minute the destruction of the library of Alexandria would have been a trifle compared to what you'd have seen." Winterman, with his large deep laugh, shook out the smouldering sheets. "And I should have been a pensioner on Doctor Bob the Lord knows how much longer!"
Bernald pulled himself together. "You've really got going again? The thing's actually getting into shape?"
"This particular thing is in shape. I drove at it hard all last week, thinking our friend's brother would be down on Sunday, and might look it over."
Bernald had to repress the tendency to another wild laugh.
"Howland—you meant to show Howland what you've done?"
Winterman, looming against the moonlight, slowly turned a dusky shaggy head toward him.
"Isn't it a good thing to do?"
Bernald wavered, torn between loyalty to his friends and the grotesqueness of answering in the affirmative. After all, it was none of his business to furnish Winterman with an estimate of Howland Wade.
"Well, you see, you've never told me what your line is," he answered, temporizing.
"No, because nobody's ever told me. It's exactly what I want to find out," said the other genially.
"And you expect Wade—?"
"Why, I gathered from our good Doctor that it's his trade. Doesn't he explain—interpret?"
"In his own domain—which is Pellerinism."
Winterman gazed out musingly upon the moon-touched dusk of waters. "And what is Pellerinism?" he asked.
Bernald sprang to his feet with a cry. "Ah, I don't know—but you're Pellerin!"
They stood for a minute facing each other, among the uncertain swaying shadows of the room, with the sea breathing through it as something immense and inarticulate breathed through young Bernald's thoughts; then Winterman threw up his arms with a humorous gesture.
"Don't shoot!" he said.
DAWN found them there, and the risen sun laid its beams on the rough floor of the bungalow, before either of the men was conscious of the passage of time. Bernald, vaguely trying to define his own state in retrospect, could only phrase it: "I floated ... floated. ..."
The gist of fact at the core of the extraordinary experience was simply that John Pellerin, twenty-five years earlier, had voluntarily disappeared, causing the rumour of his death to be reported to an inattentive world; and that now he had come back to see what that world had made of him.
"You'll hardly believe it of me; I hardly believe it of myself; but I went away in a rage of disappointment, of wounded pride—no, vanity! I don't know which cut deepest—the sneers or the silence—but between them, there wasn't an inch of me that wasn't raw. I had just the one thing in me: the message, the cry, the revelation. But nobody saw and nobody listened. Nobody wanted what I had to give. I was like a poor devil of a tramp looking for shelter on a bitter night, in a town with every door bolted and all the windows dark. And suddenly I felt that the easiest thing would be to lie down and go to sleep in the snow. Perhaps I'd a vague notion that if they found me there at daylight, frozen stiff, the pathetic spectacle might produce a reaction, a feeling of remorse. ... So I took care to be found! Well, a good many thousand people die every day on the face of the globe; and I soon discovered that I was simply one of the thousands; and when I made that discovery I really died—and stayed dead a year or two. ... When I came to life again I was off on the under side of the world, in regions unaware of what we know as 'the public.' Have you any notion how it shifts the point of view to wake under new constellations? I advise any who's been in love with a woman under Cassiopeia to go and think about her under the Southern Cross. ... It's the only way to tell the pivotal truths from the others. ... I didn't believe in my theory any less—there was my triumph and my vindication! It held out, resisted, measured itself with the stars. But I didn't care a snap of my finger whether anybody else believed in it, or even knew it had been formulated. It escaped out of my books—my poor still-born books—like Psyche from the chrysalis and soared away into the blue, and lived there. I knew then how it frees an idea to be ignored; how apprehension circumscribes and deforms it. ... Once I'd learned that, it was easy enough to turn to and shift for myself. I was sure now that my idea would live: the good ones are self-supporting. I had to learn to be so; and I tried my hand at a number of things ... adventurous, menial, commercial. ... It's not a bad thing for a man to have to live his life—and we nearly all manage to dodge it. Our first round with the Sphinx may strike something out of us—a book or a picture or a symphony; and we're amazed at our feat, and go on letting that first work breed others, as some animal forms reproduce each other without renewed fertilization. So there we are, committed to our first guess at the riddle; and our works look as like as successive impressions of the same plate, each with the lines a little fainter; whereas they ought to be—if we touch earth between times—as different from each other as those other creatures—jellyfish, aren't they, of a kind?—where successive generations produce new forms, and it takes a zoologist to see the hidden likeness. ...